Street Art

It's the Northern Irish artists that light up the Ulster Museum, not Banksy and Co

The Ulster Museum's new Street Art show, a touring exhibition from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is a clear attempt to reach out to younger people and non-traditional museum goers.

After all, when you think of the archetypal art you're likely to see at the Ulster Museum, it's artists like Sir John Lavery and Paul Henry that spring to mind: delicate pastoral scenes and wide Western skies.

The Street Art show – which features work by Banksy, D*Face, Sickboy, Miss Tic, Shepard Fairey and Jamie Hewlett – strikes a new, ostensibly more challenging note.

This is young and brash and in your face, a shot of urban culture, the clamour of the street brought into the hushed galleries of the establishment. This is the Ulster Museum – tentatively, and rather politely – going edgy.

'Computer Man (Green)' by Blek Le Rat, and 'Utopia' by Krah

And it works – up to a point. There are some striking images here. There's a Banksy screen print of the Virgin Mary feeding the infant Christ poison from a baby bottle. Another Banksy original shows the famous image of the 'napalm girl', taken in 1972 by Vietnamese photographer Nick Ut, her face contorted with pain, hand in hand with Ronald McDonald and Mickey Mouse.

It's not subtle: but you don't go to a street art show and expect subtlety. It's the same with Shepard Fairey, the artist who created the instantly-recognisable Obama 'Hope' poster. The work he has on show here draws on the same stark Russian communist style: it visually grabs you by the throat.

However imaginative, political art can sometimes be rather po-faced and heavy-handed. That's why the pieces that use humour work better. I like Pure Evil's 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart Bastards', in which the original figures on the album cover have been replaced with dictators.

It's not saying anything particularly profound, but it has an irreverence and a lightness of touch that's refreshing. Some of the other images are so blunt and confrontational that it feels like they are lecturing you from the walls.

Something is missing from this show, though. At first, I'm not sure quite what that is, but then it gradually dawns on me. What's absent is the spirit of the street: the subversiveness and simple democracy of creating a challenging, thought-provoking image on city hoardings or derelict buildings.

Street art only really works in the context of the street. Bring these artworks into a gallery setting, start selling them as screen prints for people's living room walls, and they lose some of their identity and their energy. They become defanged; they lose their bite.

Despite the big names, the part of Street Art that works best is the room given over to young street artists from Northern Ireland including Marian Noone, aka Friz; KVLR; Kerry Roper (see image below left); Lucas and Doc.

These four vast canvases come closer to retaining that dangerous vibrancy, that counter-cultural twist. They are alive in a way that the carefully framed and captioned works by internationally-recognised street artists are not.

Nonetheless, this is a laudable attempt by the Ulster Museum to open up the idea of what constitutes art, and to bring people into an art gallery who would otherwise never set foot there. Just don't expect to be shocked.

Street Art runs in the Ulster Museum until March 4, 2012.

'Modern Youth' by Kerry Roper and 'Love Supreme' by Sickboy